Lawmakers renew push for veteran centers at colleges


WASHINGTON — A group of lawmakers are continuing a yearslong push to establish student veteran centers at universities and colleges, calling for more support for former service members adjusting to academic life.

The bicameral Veteran Education Empowerment Act, first introduced in 2014 and reintroduced last week, is aiming to create dedicated spaces on campuses catering to the more than 1 million veterans who pursue higher education each year.

Student veterans face unique challenges in college, including struggles with service-related disabilities and feeling out of place after years away from school. Many of them are older than their student peers and have families to support, said Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.

“We owe our veterans an immense debt of gratitude for the sacrifices they have made, and the least we can do is to make sure they are taken care of when they return home,” she said in a statement.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is co-sponsoring the bill alongside Rosen in the Senate, and Reps. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., and Mike Waltz, R-Fla., an Army veteran, are introducing the same legislation in the House.

“This legislation would help student veterans with the transition from military to civilian life, ensuring that they have the opportunity to succeed in their education and career goals,” Rubio said in a statement.

The centers would function as one-stop shops for veteran students to access academic support, networking opportunities, peer mentorship, financial assistance and career services. The National Education Association, a teacher labor union, found veterans can feel lonely and vulnerable on campus but are less isolated after connecting with veterans who have successfully completed the first few semesters of college.

It is often “essential” for student veterans to be mentored by “another veteran who understands their mindset and experience,” according to Mission United, a support program for veterans operated by the nonprofit United Way.

The Department of Education has credited student veteran centers with improving recruitment, retention and graduation rates and directly contributing to the academic success of student veterans.

Federal funding for such spaces began in 1965, and Congress authorized further resources for the program for fiscal 2015. The newly reintroduced bill would reauthorize grants to help institutions establish and operate student veteran centers and direct the education secretary to disburse up to $500,000 for the effort.

Colleges must enroll a significant number of veterans, active-duty service members or Reserve force members to be eligible for funding. Priority will be given to institutions or consortiums located in areas with a significant population of veterans, according to the bill. Colleges that commit to hiring veterans to help staff the centers will also be prioritized.

The education secretary will be required to develop a website detailing best practices for student veteran centers no later than three years after the first grant is distributed, according to a previous version of the bill. Each grant will be awarded for four years.